Sin, Forgiveness, Faith, and Service, 1-10

17:1 Jesus said to his disciples, “Stumbling blocks are sure to come, but woe to the one through whom they come! 17:2 It would be better for him to have a millstone tied around his neck and be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. 17:3 Watch yourselves! If your brother sins, rebuke him. If he repents, forgive him. 17:4 Even if he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times returns to you saying, ‘I repent,’ you must forgive him.”
17:5 The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” 17:6 So the Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this black mulberry tree, ‘Be pulled out by the roots and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

“Increase our faith!” – ‘But why did they rather not say, ‘Increase our love,’ seeing that was the grace they were to exercise in forgiving their brother? Surely it was not because love hath its increase from faith. If they could get more faith on Christ, they might be sure they should have more love to their brother also. The more strongly they could believe on Christ for the pardon of their own sins, not ‘seven,’ but ‘seventy times’ in a day committed against God, the more easy it would be to forgive their brother offending themselves seven times a day. This interpretation, our Saviour’s reply to their pray-er for faith favours, ver. 6 -‘And the Lord said, If ye had faith as a grain of mustard seed, ye might say unto this sycamine tree, Be thou plucked up by the root, and be thou planted in the sea; and it should obey you.’ Where Christ shows the efficacy of justifying faith by the power of a faith of miracles. As if he had said, ‘You have hit on the right way to get a for-giving spirit; it is faith indeed that would enable you to conquer the unmercifulness of your hearts. Though it were as deeply rooted in you as this sycamore tree is in the ground, yet by faith you should be able to pluck it up.’ When we would have the whole tree fruitful, we think we do enough to water the root, knowing what the root sucks from the earth it will soon disperse into the branches. Thus that sap and fatness, faith, which is the radical grace, draws from Christ, will be quickly diffused through the branches of the other graces, and tasted in the pleasantness of their fruit.’ (Gurnall)

‘Of course, faith varies from person to person. It also varies in our own lives from time to time, What we must always remember is that it is not great faith that saves, but real faith. And yet: why should our faith remain little? We should feed it. Sometimes we try to feed faith on faith, giving it a diet of teaching about faith, teaching about assurance and analysis of the grace itself. What feeds faith is a sight of the glory of the Word of God and above all, a sight of the glory of Christ. Often, faith is little, faith is malnourished, because it is starved of Jesus. It is a terrifying possibility that there may be Christians who are firmly within the bounds of orthodoxy and starved of Christ. Faith needs to feed on the full range of His glory: as human and divine, Prophet, Priest and King. We should treasure and value those means of grace, those sermons and discussions and books that bring the Lord closer to us, because that is where our faith grows. The most magnificent definition of faith ever penned was the one implicit in the great words of William Guthrie describing a man who has come to faith in Christ: ‘Less would not satisfy and more is not desired.’ That is faith! Thrilled with Jesus. It cannot think of any way in which He could be improved. The New Testament is full of Christology. Let our reading and our meditation be full of Christology. Then our faith will grow.’ (McLeod, A Faith to Live By)

‘Be pulled out by the roots and planted in the sea’ – According to Morris, the rabbis said that the roots of this tree remained in the ground for 600 years, so strong were they.  So the tree is a metaphor for something seemingly immovable.  Faith can achieve what mere human reasoning would regard as impossible.

Stein suggests that such faith is effective in preaching (Acts 2:14–41; 3:11–26; 4:8–20; 7:1–53), healing (Acts 3:1–10; 4:22, 30; 5:12–16), endurance (Acts 4:21, 23–30; 5:17–42; 7:54–60), and forgiveness (Lk 17:3-5).

17:7 “Would any one of you say to your slave who comes in from the field after plowing or shepherding sheep, ‘Come at once and sit down for a meal’? 17:8 Won’t the master instead say to him, ‘Get my dinner ready, and make yourself ready to serve me while I eat and drink. Then you may eat and drink’? 17:9 He won’t thank the slave because he did what he was told, will he? 17:10 So you too, when you have done everything you were commanded to do, should say, ‘We are slaves undeserving of special praise; we have only done what was our duty.’ ”

“We are unworthy servants”

‘This is true in relation to Christians in the following respects:

1st. Our services are not profitable to God (Job 22:2); he needs not our aid, and his essential happiness will not be increased by our efforts.

2nd. The grace to do his will comes from him only, and all the praise of that will be due to him.

3rd. All that we do is what is our duty; we cannot lay claim to having rendered any service that will bind him to show us favour; and

4th. Our best services are mingled with imperfections. We come short of his glory (Rom 3:23); we do not serve him as sincerely, and cheerfully, and faithfully as we ought; we are far, very far from the example set us by the Saviour; and if we are saved and rewarded, it will be because God will be merciful to our unrighteousness, and will remember our iniquities no more, Heb 8:12. ‘ (Barnes)

‘Christ speaks here of an entire observance of the law, which is nowhere to be found; for the most perfect of all men is still at a great distance from that righteousness which the law demands. The present question is not, Are we justified by works? but, Is the observance of the law meritorious of any reward from God? This latter question is answered in the negative; for God holds us for his slaves, and therefore reckons all that can proceed from us to be his just right. Nay, though it were true, that a reward is due to the observance of the law in respect of merit, it will not therefore follow that any man is justified by the merits of works; for we all fail: and not only is our obedience imperfect, but there is not a single part of it that corresponds exactly to the judgment of God.’ (Calvin)

‘Throughout the Synoptic tradition, wherever Jesus speaks of commandments, there is always the hint of “something more” that is needed to make a person righteous before God, whether it is loving an enemy or selling one’s possessions to give to the poor. Only Luke tells the story of the servant who comes in from working in the field and is given no rest, but is told to prepare supper for the master. Yet this story is the unspoken presupposition of all Jesus’ teaching: “So you also, when you have done all that is commanded you, say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’” (Lk 17:10).’ (DJG)

‘The point to be derived from the master’s actions is clear enough. God is sovereign. The corollaries which follow from this can be phrased in various ways. God is not the equal of any human being, he requires service, and he does not reward on the basis of merit. The point to be derived from the servant’s recognition of his master’s sovereignty depends on the translation of achreios. The traditional renderings-“unprofitable” or “worthless”-are misleading. God’s people are of great worth in his sight. “Unworthy” is an improvement and suggests the idea of one who is undeserving or unable to accrue merit. It is even possible that a more strictly etymological translation does most justice to the term, in which case it would mean “without need.” Luke 17:10 would then mean that the servant is one to whom nothing is owed or to whom no favor is due. Whatever the precise nuance, it is clear that Jesus is highlighting the need for disciples to renounce any claim they might try to make on God’s grace. The parable does not deny that God will reward his people-that point is made elsewhere (e.g., Lk 12:35-38)-but it stresses that an individual’s relationship with God is “not a matter of earning or deserving, still less of bargaining, but all of grace.” The context in which Luke places this parable is a series of teachings for his disciples about faith. Like most of the parables addressed to the disciples in the Gospels, many think this one was originally meant for his opponents. Here the most important alleged incongruity is the unlikelihood of many (or any) of Jesus’ disciples being sufficiently well-to-do to own slaves. But this allegation probably overestimates the poverty of Jesus’ followers and underestimates the number of households of only modest income who were able to have one slave (and the parable gives no indication of more than one). The family of Zebedee and his sons had at least two servants (Mk 1:20). More importantly, the disciples need not even have had slaves to appreciate the force of the illustration. They would have been well enough acquainted with the practice, even if only second-hand, to appreciate its relevance. On the other hand, if the context be accepted as authentic, we need not go to the opposite extreme and assume that the teaching was applied only to the twelve disciples, or, in Luke’s day, to church leaders. The precious truths of God’s sovereignty and grace apply to all Christians. They may perhaps best be summarized as follows: (1) God retains the right to command his followers to live however he chooses.(2) God’s people should never presume that their obedience to his commands has earned them his favor. ‘ (Blomberg, Interpreting the Parables)

The Grateful Leper, 11-19

17:11 Now on the way to Jerusalem, Jesus was passing along between Samaria and Galilee. 17:12 As he was entering a village, ten men with leprosy met him. They stood at a distance, 17:13 raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” 17:14 When he saw them he said, “Go and show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went along, they were cleansed. 17:15 Then one of them, when he saw he was healed, turned back, praising God with a loud voice. 17:16 He fell with his face to the ground at Jesus’ feet and thanked him. (Now he was a Samaritan.) 17:17 Then Jesus said, “Were not ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? 17:18 Was no one found to turn back and give praise to God except this foreigner?” 17:19 Then he said to the man, “Get up and go your way. Your faith has made you well.”

Ten men with leprosy – ‘Lepers tended to live in groups (2 Kings 7:3), they avoided contact with nonlepers (Luke 17:12; Lev. 13:45–46; Num. 5:2), but they stayed near populated areas to beg alms.’ (Harper’s Bible Commentary)

Between Samaria and Galilee – This explains the mixed racial character of the group, at least one of whom was a Samaritan, v16.

They stood at a distance, raised their voices and said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us – They were required to keep at least 50 paces away from other people (Lev 13:45f).

Jesus does not touch them (cf. Mk 1:41) or promise them healing, but simply gives them a command.

“Go and show yourselves to the priests” – This would be the normal procedure after a person had recovered from leprosy.  Edwards thinks that the Samaritan would have gone to a priest at Gerizim, and the Jews (if any) to Jerusalem.

The idea of ‘turning back’ is common in this Gospel, and (for Edwards) symbolises conversion to faith.

It seems that this man, rather than continuing on to the priest, headed back to Jesus.

Harper’s Bible Commentary points out some apparent incongruities in this account.  Why was the Samaritan commended for returning to Jesus (and the other nine criticised for not doing so), when Jesus himself had instructed them to go and present themselves to the priests?  And why was the Samaritan included in this command, when he had a different centre of worship (Mount Gerizim)?  And why was he told that his faith had made him well, when all had been made well?

With regard to the last of these questions, the commentator suggests that Jesus meant something other than physical healing (since that was true for all).  Lit., the expression is, ‘Your faith has saved you’.  We may, therefore, have here an anticipation of Acts 28:26f and the faith of foreigners and the blindness of Israel.  Edwards, however, cautions against assuming that the other nine were all Jews.

How few are truly thankful!

‘The lesson before us is humbling, heart-searching, and deeply instructive. The best of us are far too like the nine lepers. We are more ready to pray than to praise, and more disposed to ask God for what we have not, than to thank him for what we have. Murmurings, and complainings, and discontent abound on every side of us. Few indeed are to be found who are not continually hiding their mercies under a bushel, and setting their needs and trials on a hill. These things ought not so to be. But all who know the church and the world must confess that they are true. The wide-spread thanklessness of Christians is the disgrace of our day. It is a plain proof of our little humility.’ (Ryle)

Miracles do not necessarily lead to Jesus

‘The experience of Jesus reflects that of many ministers, evangelists, and missionaries who invest their lives in other people and situations and often see very little response. Skeptics often assert that, if only they saw a true miracle, they would believe. This story debunks that commonplace. The other nine witnessed a miracle in their own flesh. They were doubtless convinced of the miraculous—and content with it—but it did not lead them to Jesus, faith, or salvation. The Samaritan experienced the same miracle but encountered God in it. He returned to Jesus in gratitude, and in returning, Jesus declares him not simply “cleansed,” as a priest would, but “whole,” even “saved,” for the Greek sōzein combines both latter meanings.’ (Edwards)

The Coming of the Kingdom, 20-21

17:20 Now at one point the Pharisees asked Jesus when the kingdom of God was coming, so he answered, “The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed, 17:21 nor will they say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There!’ For indeed, the kingdom of God is in your midst.”

“The kingdom of God is not coming with signs to be observed” – ‘with observation’.  Bock (IVPNTC) thinks that this is  probably ‘an allusion to the apocalyptic signs that are supposed to accompany the kingdom’s coming’.

“The kingdom of God is within you” – or ‘within you’ (NIV), ‘among you’.  But not ‘in your hearts’, since Jesus was addressing the Pharisees, who rejected him.

One possibility is that the Lord means that the kingdom is ‘within your grasp’, subject to repentance.  But ths is rather conjectural.

Perhaps Jesus means, ‘the kingdom of God is a good as present, since I am here among you.’  Bock (IVPNTC) puts it like this:

‘It is present in Jesus, so he and it stand before you. You do not have to look for it, because it is right before your face! This answer is very much like 7:22–23 and 11:20. It also fits the time perspective of 7:28 and 16:16, as well as the explicit declarations of current fulfillment in 4:16–23.’

This saying appears to be in conflict with Lk 22:18, where Jesus speaks of the kingdom as future, “from now on I will not drink of the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”  But this is yet another instance of the Bible’s now/not yet theme:

‘In the present context Jesus was stressing that the kingdom is within reach. Jesus’ presence and activity meant that the kingdom did not need to be searched for; Jesus brought it with him (Luke 11:20 is similar in force). In what follows, Jesus indicated that the end or consummation of kingdom promise will come about at the return of the Son of Man, but that cannot take place before his suffering. This return will happen in the midst of life when many will not be ready for it or for the judgment that comes with it.’
(Holman Apologetics Commentary)

But what does ‘the kingdom of God is within you’ mean?  Various interpretations have been proposed:

Edwards agrees that the expression could be translated, ‘the kingdom of God is within you’, but notes that ‘you’ is plural, giving a much less subjective connotation, and something nearer to ‘among you’.  This would mean that ‘Jesus among them is the presence of the kingdom, but his presence is not heralded by a display of wonders.’

Morris favours the translation, “The kingdom of God is among you”.  But usage in Greek generally, and in Luke’s Greek in particular, determines that entos is correctly translated ‘within’.  ‘“Within you,” therefore, seems to be Luke’s way of expressing the inward nature and dynamic of the kingdom of God, rather than refer to any actual presence in or among the Pharisees.’ (DJG)

The Coming of the Son of Man, 22-37

17:22 Then he said to the disciples, “The days are coming when you will desire to see one of the days of the Son of Man, and you will not see it. 17:23 Then people will say to you, ‘Look, there he is!’ or ‘Look, here he is!’ Do not go out or chase after them. 17:24 For just like the lightning flashes and lights up the sky from one side to the other, so will the Son of Man be in his day. 17:25 But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation. 17:26 Just as it was in the days of Noah, so too it will be in the days of the Son of Man. 17:27 People were eating, they were drinking, they were marrying, they were being given in marriage—right up to the day Noah entered the ark. Then the flood came and destroyed them all. 17:28 Likewise, just as it was in the days of Lot, people were eating, drinking, buying, selling, planting, building; 17:29 but on the day Lot went out from Sodom, fire and sulfur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all. 17:30 It will be the same on the day the Son of Man is revealed. 17:31 On that day, anyone who is on the roof, with his goods in the house, must not come down to take them away, and likewise the person in the field must not turn back. 17:32 Remember Lot’s wife!

Lk 17:26,27 = Mt 24:37–39

“As the lightning…so will be the Son of Man in his day”

Writing in Evangelical Times, Andy McIntosh cites this saying as proving that the Flood was worldwide:- ‘Christ’s second coming will be global, so by the same token the Flood was global.’  But the expression, “As it was…so it will be…” does not suggest that the two events are similar in every respect.  The context makes it clear that the similarity is not in their extent, but in their unexpectedness.

“But first he must suffer many things and be rejected by this generation” – Does this imply that Jesus thought that the end of all things would happen soon after his death?  Bock (IVPNTC) notes:

‘Scholars often argue that the church suffered from the “delay of the parousia”: Jesus predicted a soon arrival, and when it did not come the church struggled to explain why it did not come. In Lukan studies the major name tied to this view is Hans Conzelmann (1961). He taught that much of Luke is dedicated to concern over the fact that Jesus did not come as quickly as the church had expected (or, in some views, as quickly as he had led them to believe). But in this speech and in the Olivet discourse Jesus is outlining a series of events that precede the return. He makes clear in texts like Mark 13:10, 32 that the exact timing is not known and that other things must happen first, like his suffering and the church’s preaching of the gospel. These discourses function to reassure disciples that God has a plan, even if we cannot know the exact timing of all these events. If there is a problem with “delay,” it is because the church failed to reflect on the whole of Jesus’ teaching.’

“The flood came and destroyed them all” – ‘Christ describes the indifferent routine of the people of Noah’s times, then notes that the flood came and destroyed them all anyway. To this he likens the day when the Son of Man is revealed. Here the point is that people were unprepared for the disaster that was to strike. It refers only to people who were destroyed, not to land that was covered.’ (DOTP)

17:33 Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life will preserve it. 17:34 I tell you, in that night there will be two people in one bed; one will be taken and the other left. 17:35 There will be two women grinding grain together; one will be taken and the other left.”
17:37 Then the disciples said to him, “Where, Lord?” He replied to them, “Where the dead body is, there the vultures will gather.”

“In that night there will be two people in one bed” – Masculine in Gk., and possibly, but not necessarily, implying two males (complementing the two women mentioned in the next verse.

Garland says that ‘the image has no sexual overtones and reflects less affluent times when people did not enjoy the luxury of private bedrooms.’  Edwards is of the same opinion, adding, however, that the expression indicates that the closest of family ties will be severed.

“Two women grinding grain together” – ‘Two women work their hand mill—one normally operated by two women squatting opposite each other with the mill between them, each woman in turn pulling the stone around 180 degrees. The two are apt to be sisters, mother and daughter, or two household slaves. Yet no matter how close their relationship, at the Parousia one is taken, the other left (cf. Mt 10:35–36).’ (Carson, on Matthew)

Wright, on the other hand, does not think that Jesus’ teaching refers to the Parousia.  It is, rather about the events surrounding the destruction of Jerusalem in AD70.  Accordingly, ‘this doesn’t mean (as some have suggested) that one person will be ‘taken’ away by God in some kind of supernatural salvation (‘rapture’?), while the other is ‘left’ to face destruction. If anything, it’s the opposite: when invading forces sweep through a town or village, they will ‘take’ some off to their deaths, and ‘leave’ others untouched.’  We think that Wright is mistaken in supposing that this passage refers to the destruction of Jerusalem, rather than to the parousia.  However, he is correct in suggesting that to be ‘taken away’ is bad, whereas to be ‘left behind’ is good.

So conservative an author as E.W. Bullinger (Figures of Speech Used in the Bible) can write:

‘Luke 17:37 clearly shows that it is a time of judgment (see verses 24–37); and that the taking and the leaving refer to judgment, and not to the Rapture of 1 Thess. 4:17; which was a subsequent revelation, and ought not to be read into the Gospels, which are perfectly clear without it.’

And Schnabel (40 Questions about the End Times) explains:

‘In Matthew 24:38–39, Jesus compares the coming of the Son of Man with the people living at the time of Noah’s flood, who were “swept away” because they were unprepared. Thus, the people who are “taken” in Matthew 24:40–41 are people who are “taken” for judgment (see Jer. 6:11). There is no reference to a sudden disappearance of people from earth.’

According to some, the saying of Jesus that his Second Coming of Jesus Christ ‘will occur while some are asleep at night and others are working at daytime activities in the field…is a clear indication of a revolving earth, with day and night at the same time.’  Even so thoughtful a commentator as Hendriksen can say: ‘This is very logical, for if the Son of man arrives in the air above a place where it is night, it will be day on the other side of the globe; and vice versa.’  We think that such attempts to harmonise the Bible with science are unhelpful.

Bock (IVPNTC) notes that,

‘it is debated whether the one is taken into judgment and the one is left for salvation or the other way around. Given the Noah and Lot metaphors, as well as the picture of the birds gathering over the dead bodies in verse 37, it seems that it is those who are left behind who experience the judgment. Those who flee, like Noah and Lot, are spared.’

[17:36 “There will be two in the field; one will be taken and the other left.”] This verse is not well attested in the ancient manuscripts, and is omitted in a number of modern translations.  It is, however, present in Mt 24:40.

Then the disciples said to him, “Where, Lord?” – ‘Where will judgment take place?’  The question seems to ignore, or perhaps, defy, Jesus’ denial in v23.

“Where the dead body is, there the vultures will gather” – The word translated ‘vultures’ can also refer to eagles. But it is the former, of course, that are noted for feeding off carrion.  Fitzmyer thinks that ‘eagles’ might be meant, as an allusion to the Roman ensign; but this seems unlikely.

Many different interpretations have been offered for this saying.  It is positioned differently in Matthew  and is there linked to the lightning simile and, according to Garland, ‘refers to the universal visibility of Jesus’ coming (Matt 24:27–28)’. In Luke, ‘the saying is separated from the lightning simile and placed in the climactic position of the discourse at the end’ (Garland, who concludes that the saying carries different meanings in the two Gospels.)

This saying may be proverbial (Morris).  Note that it is spoken in response to the disciples’ question, “Where, Lord?”  However, Jesus’ reply is as much about ‘when’ as it is about ‘where’.  Neither timetable nor map is given; but it will be as obvious as the presence of vultures circling around a corpse in the desert.

Morris summarises Jesus’ meaning: ‘Where the spiritually dead are found, there inevitably will there be judgment.’

Stein finds the proverb ‘quite confusing’.  He thinks that ‘it may mean that just as vultures know where carcasses are, so the world unmistakably will know when and where the Son of Man returns.’

For Edwards, the most obvious interpretation is that,

‘as eagles are attracted to a dying or dead animal, so the events of vv. 22–26 portend the return of the Son of Man…Eagles are thus birds of omen, just as events preceding the return of the Son of Man are also omens—not precise timetables, but certain reminders of the inevitable and ultimate.’

Bock writes:

‘The image is grim. The Son of Man’s return means massive judgment; it will be final and will carry the stench of death. The return will be deadly serious. You should not be on the wrong side when it comes. Be assured that the vindication of the saints will come (18:1–8). The Son of Man’s return means humanity’s separation into two camps: those who were for him enter into everlasting life, while those who were against him face an everlasting judgment.’